FinCom Applauds Proposed School Budget with 3.5% Increase

The Finance Committee spotlight shone on the proposed fiscal 2023 Bedford education budget Thursday, and the virtual room was bathed in a collegial glow.

Although the committee didn’t take a formal vote on the $43 million plan, there were individual expressions of support. And most of the questions from members focused on terminology and longer-term trends, rather than on specific line items.

“I’m very broadly supportive of what you’re presenting here,” said member David Powell. His colleague Ben Thomas lauded school leaders and staff for their budget preparation and said Julie Kirrane, director of finance for the School Department, “does huge financial lifting for us.”

The only area of concern was the $200,000 proposed reserve account that is actually separate from the budget. This safety net has been proposed for the past few years to cover unanticipated out-of-district tuition for students with special learning needs. The current reserve totals $450,000.

“I hope we can wind down the reserve,” member Paul Mortensen said, and absorb the projection into the budget. “The reserve really needs to go,” said Thomas. He pointed out that the $200,000 added to the proposed budget results is an increase of 3.94 percent.

Thomas suggested that the projected fiscal 2023 savings of more than $170,000 in special-needs student transportation could serve as “seed money.” Kirrane noted that the increased state share in transportation reimbursement appears to be a permanent commitment.

Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad opened the meeting with a 30-minute budget overview, similar to the presentation he made two days earlier at the annual budget public hearing.

Conrad acknowledged that the Finance Committee had approved a spending increase guideline of 3.25 percent, but the budget was prepared in line with the 3.5 percent ceiling of recent years.  No one challenged the discrepancy. Indeed, committee members Karen Dunn and Mortensen said they favor the higher guideline.

Mortensen said he would support a 3.5 percent guideline over the long term. Conrad replied that inflation eventually could impact the school budget in ways apparent in the private sector now. There will be curriculum additions and changes, and eventually a revised contract with teachers. “We will continue to look for spots where we can reduce our expenses,” he said.

FinCom member Elizabeth McClung said, “Given inflation and other issues in the economy, we need to be cautious with our spending and make sure we can balance other needs that come up in the town.”

Members Steven Steele and Erica Liu pointed out that although enrollment shows a small decrease, there is a net increase in staff of eight-tenths (expressed as full-time equivalents). Conrad explained that there are three fewer classes projected for the elementary grades, but additional hires for special education services, including some “off-cycle” changes during the school year, offset the reduction.

Personnel, Conrad said, are “needed in other places and a lot of times it is to make sure we can implement a student’s IEP (individual instruction plan),” he said in answer to a question from Dunn.

Committee member David Powell wondered whether there are “ways we can marshal new technologies to try to create a way to educate our students, with fewer dollars spent” on personnel. Later, in an unrelated comment, McClung said “there are some students who don’t need more screen time.” She said “the trend is to get away from textbooks,” but “I don’t want people to lose sight that there are a lot of differences in learning styles.”

During a description of the budgeted cooperative girls’ interscholastic gymnastics program with Wilmington High School, Finance Committee Chair Steve Carluccio observed that, considering how much students have missed because of pandemic limitations, the committee should support “everything that is reasonable that they’re looking to do, and enable it to the highest degree possible.”

“All of our staff really wants kids to have a full experience,” Conrad responded.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763


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